In a groundbreaking paper of 1974, Becker asserted that people marry for the same reason that countries trade with one another – namely, comparative advantage. If, for example, a man happens to be better at earning in the labour market, his wife better at looking after home and family, he argued, it makes sense for them to combine forces within marriage – so each can specialise at what they do best.
Given the expansion of labour market opportunities for women since the 1970s, Becker’s theory may need some revision, although fundamental principles still apply. Following in his wake, economists’ interest in matters of the heart has grown exponentially; with infidelity, dating and even sex itself being put under the microeconomic microscope.
‘Econ 101’ may seem like a clunky and unromantic way to view love, but people have employed economic principles in their relationship decision-making for generations. Arguably, these factors have been hugely underestimated in changing norms and behaviour.
Economic trends govern even our basic understanding of love. Although Jane Austen wrote about it, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet acted it out on stage, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that love and companionship were widely accepted as pre-requisites for marriage. In Britain, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are (rightly) credited with helping turn the tide towards romantic love and the nuclear family by living out their domestic idyll in public. The couple popularised many of the romantic traditions we nowadays take for granted, including the engagement ring, the white wedding dress and gift-giving on anniversaries.
Yet the expansion of the family unit developed from economic realities as well as changing romantic and cultural sensibilities. Industrialisation and the boom in material wealth triggered a huge expansion of the middle classes, both in numbers and affluence. Millions of additional households could establish themselves as independent economic units for the first time, away from extended families and wider networks. Growing labour mobility hastened these trends, as it became common for smaller family units to relocate away from their birthplace and existing networks in search of jobs. The inward-looking, traditional nuclear family with its emphasis on romance, companionship – and, per Becker, division of labour into ‘separate spheres’ – was hugely influenced by these shifts.
Even the concept of ‘dating’ didn’t exist until industrialisation and changing demographic trends expanded freedom, leisure time and disposable income. The turn of the century saw an increasing number of Western women leaving rural areas to work in the city. Living in boarding-houses or with relatives, they worked in factories, offices and department stores or as domestic servants, and were among the first women with the freedom to date independently. Meeting men during and after work, working women were able to have dinner and some fun at a dance hall or funfair. It would take the middle classes rather longer to abandon traditional forms of courtship, such as chaperoned visits.
Throughout history, scarcity on the dating market has impacted our behaviour in significant, if hidden, ways. As economists and economic historians are now documenting, societies with strong gender imbalances often display unorthodox dating behaviour of one kind or another.
Between the 17th and early 20th centuries, thousands of otherwise ‘unmarriageable’ British women, the illegitimate or those without personal beauty or dowries to recommend them, were shipped out to colonial India to find mates. Nicknamed the ‘Fishing Fleet,’ these groups sought to take advantage of the huge surplus of men working for the British Raj or East India Company, compared to the number of available ‘marriageable’ women. In 1800, for example, there were only 250 European women in Bengal and its dependencies, compared to 4000 men.
It didn’t take long for East India Company officials to see a business opportunity. Rather than paying women to travel out to India, as had been the norm previously, so desperate were middle-class families to offload their unwed daughters, the Company realised, that they could start charging husband-seekers who had been unable to make a good match at home.
In China, the legacy and skewed demographics of the One Child Policy has left a highly competitive marriage market, where decision-making power overwhelmingly rests with women. In 2005, there were 120 men to every 100 women in China. In rural areas, where gender-selective abortion and infanticide are more prevalent, the male-female ratio can rise to as much as 130-100.
This, combined with the fact that Chinese women are becoming increasingly well-educated and financially independent, means that men must work harder than ever to capture a woman’s heart, by signalling their trustworthiness and ability to provide. Chances of marrying in this female-scarce environment are materially increased by owning your own home. A 2010 survey of Chinese mothers with young daughters found that more than four fifths would object to their daughters marrying a non-homeowner.
Read Part 2 here.